Sony's SXRD: A new picture quality benchmark?
A review of the KDS-R50XBR1 50" Grand Wega SXRD TV
Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer announcer in the folk department of community radio station WTJU, where he is one of the regular hosts of "Atlantic Weekly."
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During the past two years, the price tag for Sony's acclaimed SXRD display technology has dropped from $30,000 to $13,000 to a much more wallet-friendly $4000 (with the 50" KDS-R50XBR1, shown).
For me, one of the real high points of the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show was seeing Sony's 70" Qualia 006 rear-projection TV in action. That $13,000 set uses a Sony-developed projection technology called SXRD Silicon X-tal (Crystal) Reflective Display. Watching high-definition movie clips fed from a prototype Blu-ray player, I saw exceptional picture clarity and detail, with vivid colors and a seamless overall look that reminded me of the finest tube-based TVs.
Until now, the only other way to experience SXRD has been via Sony's $30,000 Qualia 004 front projector, which has established a new reference for projector picture quality. When I learned that Sony was introducing 50" and 60" Grand Wega SXRD TVs with full 1080p resolution priced more in the mainstream of digital big-screens (like DLPs), I wondered how much of the SXRD magic Sony could preserve in models priced much lower.
Since I recently reviewed Samsung's 50" HL-R5078W DLP TV, which is also a 1080p design, I felt I had a handle on the considerable improvements in picture quality that 1080p provides compared to the more common 720p sets. The Samsung's bright, extraordinarily sharp picture had set the bar pretty high. Would the Sony be able to meet or even exceed its performance?
How SXRD works
All of Sony's previous Grand Wega big-screen TVs have been based on LCD display technology. SXRD, on the other hand, is a refined variation of LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) technology. Both types create images by manipulating microscopic liquid crystals. But here's the key difference: LCD is a "transmissive" technology where light passes through the image chip, while SXRD is a "reflective" technology that sandwiches a layer of liquid crystal between a cover glass and a highly reflective mirror-like surface patterned with pixels. Reflective displays such as LCoS and SXRD (and DLP) use the light from the TV's projection lamp more efficiently, resulting in higher picture brightness and contrast.
The other main LCoS/SXRD advantage is having the circuitry that controls the pixels positioned behind the pixel array and out of the light path, rather than on the array as with LCD. That permits SXRD pixels and the spaces between the pixels to be much smaller, resulting in pictures that are detailed yet extremely smooth and natural looking. SXRD is a "3-chip" system there are three SXRD image panels, one each for red, green, and blue. Each panel has 1920 x 1080 pixels, allowing 1080i HDTV signals to be displayed at full resolution.
So, SXRD has some great numbers, but how do they translate to what you see on the screen? Here's my quick take on the main factors determining image quality:
- Resolution: While SXRD is not the only display technology to deliver 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution, SXRD has the highest "pixel density" and the smallest between-pixel spacing of any TV available. From a normal viewing distance, images looked remarkably smooth and seamless, and even with my face just inches from the screen, I couldn't see any sign of grid-like pixel structure (often called the "screen door effect").
- Contrast: The SXRD chips in the KDS-R50XBR1 are the latest generation, and offer higher contrast than the chips in the Qualia 006 (5000:1 vs. 3000:1). Contrast is further enhanced through the use of a motor-driven "dynamic iris" (explained below). The Sony's contrast and black level performance equalled the best I've seen from a rear-projection set: Samsung's 50" HL-R5078W.
- Color: Because there are separate image chips for red, green, and blue, SXRD provides continuous color. Compared to a rear-projection TV that requires a fast-spinning color wheel, SXRD puts more color information on the screen at any given instant. Colors look rich and deeply saturated. In fact, the color occasionally seemed a bit too lush, but while I wouldn't swear that it was always 100% accurate, it was always 100% eye-pleasing.
- Motion: Digital displays (LCD, plasma, SXRD/LCoS, DLP) build images out of pixels, and the ability to produce smooth, clean motion depends on the display's "pixel response time" (the time it takes for one pixel to switch from fully on to fully off). Sony's current LCD-based Grand Wegas have a pixel response time of 12 milliseconds, which is generally considered excellent. SXRD image panels use a much thinner liquid crystal layer, which enables a lightning-fast response time of just 5 milliseconds. You might not think the human eye could detect a difference of a few milliseconds, but it really makes a difference in how believably a screen can display fast-motion material like sports. I never saw any trace of motion smearing even while watching college football on ESPN HD.
The motorized iris includes a circuit that samples the brightness level of the video signal and responds instantly to deliver the best possible contrast and black level.
A "dynamic iris" improves black level and contrast in the blink of an eye
Like other top-performing 1080p big-screen TVs, the KDS-R50XBR1 (and its big brother, the 60" KDS-R60XBR1) employs a "dynamic iris" feature that constantly monitors and adjusts the amount of the lamp's light that passes through to the screen. Sony's approach gives the user the ability to fine-tune iris operation, providing a more customized viewing experience. On the KDS-R50XBR1, the dynamic iris is part of Sony's Cinema Black Pro system, which works in two ways:
- Iris Control: This lets you enlarge or reduce the iris' overall opening based on the amount of light in your viewing area. You can increase the overall brightness level for watching sports during the day, then reduce the brightness for a more cinematic look when viewing DVD movies at night. You can choose from 5 settings.
- Advanced Iris: This feature, which is also user-adjustable, includes a circuit that samples the brightness level of the video signal and automatically adjusts the iris opening on the fly to optimize brightness, contrast, and black level on a scene-by-scene basis.
The dynamic iris is extremely effective, and most viewers will never even be aware of its operation. Blacks were very deep without sacrificing details in dark or shadowy scenes. This has been an area where CRT-based TVs have typically outperformed digital displays, but I think even the most demanding videophiles will be impressed by the way this Sony handles dark and high-contrast scenes.
Now that you have a feel for what makes the KDS-R50XBR1 tick, how does it look? Read on.
HDTV + SXRD = WOW
During initial setup, the KDS-R50XBR1's auto-scanning feature quickly located and stored all receivable analog and digital over-the-air stations using my Terk HDTVi set-top antenna. When I reviewed the Samsung HL-R5078W DLP, I'd considered its tuner quite sensitive, but the Sony pulled in even more analog and digital stations. However, the Sony lost its lock on digital signals more often, occasionally to the point where I had to switch back to a satellite signal. I suspect that since the TV transmitter towers are located some 13 miles from my house, I may have been at the edge of the Terk's useful range here in the hills and hollows of central Virginia. (In fact, the Sony owner's manual specifically recommends against using an indoor antenna.)
I recently dumped my cable TV service in favor of DISH satellite service, mostly because DISH provides several channels of HDTV (though not the major networks). I watched parts of several movies on HDNet, HBO HD, and Showtime HD, plus some eye-popping travel and nature shows on Discovery HD. The picture quality of the HD channels was a major improvement over their non-HD counterparts, but still didn't match the effortless clarity and sharpness of over-the-air HD broadcasts, which are uncompressed signals, unlike satellite and cable HD signals. Over half of my high-definition viewing was NBC programming, as that's the only network offering local digital broadcasts in the Charlottesville area.
I also was able to play and record HD signals using a borrowed D-VHS VCR. The connection I used between the TV and VCR was i.LINK® (Sony's name for IEEE 1394, aka FireWire®). This single-cable digital connection is way underappreciated, in my opinion, because for now anyway it's the easiest and most versatile option for recording HD signals. After connecting the slender i.LINK cable, I hit the "i.LINK" button on the Sony remote, and the i.LINK control panel popped up on screen (the i.LINK button is a nifty shortcut, as it eliminates having to cycle through all of the TV's video inputs). The control panel showed that the TV had identified the VCR as the JVC HM-DH40000U. The on-screen panel also duplicated the JVC's transport controls (Play, Stop, Pause, etc.) so I could operate it using the TV remote (slick!). I recorded over-the-air HD broadcasts of Crossing Jordan and Law and Order, and saw absolutely no difference between the recordings and the original broadcasts. I also watched a pre-recorded "D-Theater" D-VHS movie, Behind Enemy Lines, which looked intensely real, from the spick-and-span surfaces of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the ragged grit of bombed-out Balkan towns.
The KDS-R50XBR1's picture was addictive. Detail and clarity seemed about equal to that of the Samsung 50" 1080p model, but after watching for a week or two, I felt the Sony's picture was consistently a bit smoother and more solid. Some people might consider the Sony's image slightly soft, but sometimes digital displays actually look too sharp to my eye, while the Sony appeared more natural. SXRD image quality reminded me of a Sony TV training session I attended about a year ago. They had set up a roomful of HDTVs representing all their display technologies: flat-panel LCD, plasma, rear-projection LCD, and CRT. Every screen looked bright, crisp, and detailed, but the 34" XBR tube model (KD-34XBR960) stood out from every other display due to the striking depth and dimensionality of its picture. SXRD produces a similar effect, as though it's resolving detail much deeper into the image.
DVDs get the SXRD treatment
Again, like the Samsung 1080p big-screen, the KDS-R50XBR1 has absolutely superb built-in video processing. I was able to get the best-looking DVD picture by feeding the TV an interlaced signal via component video cables and letting the set handle the processing.
As I watched a handful of favorite DVDs, I grew even more impressed by the Sony's picture quality. The experience was similar to listening to a familiar CD on a high-end audio system: you notice details you never realized were there. That happened again and again as I watched DVDs like The Bourne Identity and the Superbit version of The Fifth Element. Colors were absolutely gorgeous, and scenes had a seamless 3-D look that made them seem more filmlike.
I wanted to take color out of the equation, so I plopped in the Coen Brothers' black-and-white masterpiece, The Man Who Wasn't There. There seemed to be about a zillion shades of gradation between black and white, and I repeatedly found my attention drawn to the textures of everyday objects: the weave of a suit coat, details of '50s fabrics and furniture, and Billy Bob Thornton's craggy facial features. Black-and-white films can often seem stark, but viewed on the Sony, this one looked positively rich.
Picture controls that are a video tweaker's delight
If you're a videophile who enjoys digging into a TV's picture setting menus and fine-tuning every parameter, the KDS-R50XBR1 will keep you busy for a while. Its picture controls are the most extensive I've seen. Out of the box, the default picture preset is labeled "Vivid," and seems designed more for attracting shoppers in electronics showrooms than for producing an accurate picture. Simply switching to the "Pro" preset reduces contrast and sharpness to more reasonable levels, and disables several picture "enhancing" circuits that do more harm than good. In fact, many viewers will find that simply switching to Pro mode is all the adjustment needed for a beautifully natural-looking picture.
With SXRD, Sony has a clear winner
Before taking the KDS-R50XBR1 home I'd already seen enthusiatic comments about these SXRD TVs in Internet message boards like AVS Forum, but I was still extremely impressed by the across-the-board excellence of the SXRD picture. It manages to combine the smooth, seamless look of CRTs with the pinpoint precision and control of a digital display.
This is a terrific TV, but there are a couple of minor things that could be improved. Sony's cabinet design, with its prominent side-mounted speakers, seems to inspire love or hate and rarely anything in between. The speakers' sculpted look complements the overall design, and they actually sound very good, but they do add about 10 inches to the cabinet's overall width (and they're not removable). And while the remote control's slender aluminum case has an elegant look and feel, there are lots of small buttons crammed close together, and the buttons aren't illuminated.
Although flat-panel plasma and LCD TVs seem to be on everyone's wish list this year, the new generation of 1080p rear-projection TVs offers equal or superior picture quality to my eye. Competition among TV makers is running white-hot these days, with improvements appearing at a breakneck pace. The next display technology breakthrough may be only six months down the road, but if I were in the market for a big-screen TV today, Sony's KDS-R50XBR1 is the one I would buy.